In which your Idiosopher considers how to measure an author’s cultural depth.
Brenton has a quotation from a letter by C.S. Lewis that seems to say nice things about the way I’ve been approaching literature. Lewis doesn’t like the idea of canonical lists of books that youngsters should read. I don’t like canonical lists either, unless I’ve read everything on it and can feel smug therefore. The only time I’ve ever gone and read books because they were part of a canon, it was Michael Dirda’s list of the “100 Best Humorous Novels.” (Alas, no link. It was in the Washington Post, long ago.)
Un jour viendra où l’on montrera un canon dans les musées comme on y montre aujourd’hui un instrument de torture, en s’étonnant que cela ait pu être!
(Someday we’ll exhibit canons in museums, as we do now with instruments of torture, amazed that such things could ever have existed!)
What Lewis prefers is a sort of terrain-following model, as one work you love leads to other writers, in a long chain of culture. It’s not linear, of course. It’s more like following a river through its delta. Some streams split and merge, some flow straight to the sea, some spin around in eddies and backwaters.
For me, on the science fiction/fact side, one chain was Asimov → Clarke → Niven → Dyson → Feynman → Dirac → Einstein.  On the fantasy side, there’s a chain that goes Tolkien → Ursula LeGuin → Mervyn Peake → E.R. Eddison → Lord Dunsany → Thomas Malory → Medieval romances.  To be absolutely accurate, the latter chain should start with Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs, the libretto of which I read before Lord of the Rings. The chain has a kind of “V” shape in time, bouncing off World War II.
There’s a nice idiosophical vein here. Lots of people measure the cultural significance of a work by how many arrows lead from it. LotR, by this measure, might be the most culturally-significant work of the twentieth century, since arrows lead from it to a large section of modern bookstores and the entire art of fantasy role-playing games. That’s the azimuthal direction, if you will. But maybe there’s another dimension: Might it be of interest how long the chains are, as well how many chains originate there? The depth to which authors connect into existing cultural structures seems orthogonal to their azimuthal impact, and might yield interesting insights. The fact that the metric will be biased towards books enjoyed by teenagers may be entertaining, as well.
Quantitative data to rank various authors by chain-length can be obtained from elderly scholars. They’ll have to be elderly, because these chains are only visible in hindsight. It seems easily parallelizable, hence ideal for the Web. The job could be a lot of work, but if you like talking to classicists and medievalists anyway, it wouldn’t be much of a chore.